We’re always looking forward to the next big thing in our lives, whether it’s a long-awaited trip abroad, graduating from college or getting a promotion at work. So it makes sense that when we set out to document our lives on paper, through photos or on video, we usually focus on the bigger or more unusual happenings.
But while these out-of-the-ordinary moments are certainly worth remembering, research shows that recording even our most mundane everyday experiences can be more meaningful than we realize. We’re generally not very good at predicting what will matter to us down the line. Something that you may not give a second thought now, like reading the kids a story before bed, may one day seem extraordinary when your circumstances have changed and those events or routines are no longer commonplace.
To see how our views of events and experiences change over time, researchers from Harvard Business School asked a group of college students to create time capsules at the beginning of the summer. Each student wrote about some of their recent experiences, such as the last social event they attended, a recent conversation they had, and some of the songs they currently liked. They were also asked to predict how curious they would be about each memory later on and how meaningful they thought it would be to them.
When they opened their time capsules three months later and were again asked to rate the experiences they’d written down, it became clear that they had significantly underestimated how interesting and meaningful they would find them.
In another experiment, participants were asked to estimate how much they would enjoy reading about what they’d done on a fairly typical day with their partner and what they had done on Valentine’s Day. Although they were quite accurate in estimating how much they would enjoy reading about their Valentine’s Day together, they underestimated how much they would value looking back on a more typical everyday experience.
In our fast-paced world it can be difficult to step back and see how valuable simple moments of peace and quiet or times shared with loved ones really are. But by undervaluing such moments, we could be missing out on the pleasurable and meaningful experience of rediscovering them.
When you think back on your own childhood, what are the memories that stand out? While there are probably significant life events you remember clearly, like moving to a new city or starting high school, many of your happy memories are probably tied to seemingly insignificant things like coming home from school to find your mother preparing supper or spending Sunday mornings building Lego castles.
One reason we don’t usually bother recording such moments is that we assume they’ll be easy to remember since they’re so commonplace. The upside is that even though we don’t end up remembering as much as we expect to, safeguarding and bringing memories back to life is fairly simple.
“Reading a few sentences was all it took to evoke the feelings and circumstances that surrounded the documented experience,” explained Ting Zhang, lead researcher of the Harvard Business School group. “People find a lot of joy in rediscovering a music playlist from months ago or an old joke with a neighbor, even though those things did not seem particularly meaningful in the moment.”
She emphasizes that the takeaway from this research should be the importance of never taking the present for granted. Fortunately, documenting day-to-day events can be as simple as writing a few lines in your journal or taking a picture during a happy moment shared with a friend or loved one.
This is not to say that you should try to capture every moment of your day, which could actually interfere with your enjoyment of it. But if you make an effort to appreciate life’s simple joys as much as you do the bigger events, your future self will thank you.
Zhang, T., Kim, T., Wood Brooks, A., Gino, F., Norton, M. (2014 August 29). A “Present” for the Future: The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery. Psychological Science.
Kids playing with Legos photo available from Shutterstock